Aston Villa gave their supporters the joy of six last Saturday with the 3-2 victory over Burton Albion wrapping up a superb half dozen of victories in a row. That’s an achievement not to be sniffed at, at any level. However, there is no time to pat ourselves on the back for too long as this coming weekend sees the visit of fierce rivals Birmingham City and the potential return of Holte End hero, Gabriel Agbonlahor.
The match is a special highlight of the fixture list and both sides come into it in good form. Whilst the result is the only thing that matters, the game may carry extra significance for one player in particular.
Agbonlahor is a man of extremely peculiar standing. Despite being the club’s all-time leading Premier League goalscorer, he is also vilified by the majority of the club’s supporters. Where some regard him as a legend or a hero, some say he has stolen a wage for many a year.
Whatever your views on him, come derby-day, Agbonlahor has a curious knack of finding the net with extremely important goals. And in recent times, another oddity is that, despite seemingly constantly being injured, Gabby somehow manages to be fit for these games.
Indeed, after missing most of this current season, Agbonlahor seems to be thawing himself out at just the right time once again. A video posted by the man himself on his Instagram account a couple of weeks ago showed him scoring a top corner ‘worldy’ in training. He is clearly intent on staking a claim to participate.
But in all likelihood, this will be Gabby’s final second city-derby match, whether he plays or not. The much-maligned hitman is out of contract come June and there appears to be very little chance of an offer forthcoming. There is no doubt that Agbonlahor was one of the biggest beneficiaries from the Randy Lerner era, being handed a five-year contract worth a reported £60k a week that he has dined out on for the entirety of that duration.
In a week where it has been revealed that Alan Hutton, a player who has given his all for the club in the face of adversity, will not be given a contract renewal this summer, there seems absolutely no hope for Agbonlahor. And in my opinion, nor should there be.
I find it difficult to blame the player himself for the contract he is on. After all, if that sort of money and security is offered, I know I’d definitely sign, and so would you. However, the big issue is that having signed such a deal, as a lifelong Villa fan which he and I both are, I wouldn’t have then sat on my backside doing nothing for the next five years.
By my own admission, that actually may be slightly harsh. Injuries have certainly played a part in his recent absences from first-team football. Steve Bruce has commented several times that Agbonlahor has been dedicated to his training, when able to participate.
But for the most part, Gabby has blown his chance of being a true legend through his own doing. A poor attitude, a neglect of his fitness (which may well have contributed to the seemingly constant injuries) and a total apathy towards his responsibility at a time when the club needed him most.
His behaviour during our relegation season especially is unforgivable and cannot be simply swept under the carpet. As club captain, and again, as a lifelong supporter of the club, Agbonlahor’s conduct and attitude was nothing short of a disgrace.
The performances were bad enough. One goal in fifteen league appearances. But it is unfair to single him out for that when the whole team were just as pathetic during that season.
There just seemed to be a total meltdown and disregard for what was going on at the club. He simply didn’t care. By the point we were eventually officially relegated, Agbonlahor had been banished to train by himself on an intensive fitness course due to the fact that he was a stone overweight. That might not sound much, but to a top-class athlete, it’s effect would be almost debilitating in relation to performance. Getting out of shape in such a manner during the off-season is some effort. It ought to be impossible during the season.
The fitness regime didn’t seem to mean much to him anyway, because a few days before that, he was pictured smoking a shisha pipe on holiday in Dubai. To top the whole thing off, on the night that Villa’s relegation was confirmed after a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, Agbonlahor was pictured in a Mayfair hotel with laughing gas canisters surrounding his feet.
These weren’t the actions of an impressionable young man which can be understood a little more easily; Agbonlahor was approaching thirty years old at this point.
I’m not of the opinion that a footballer should stay indoors and never be seen enjoying themselves. But the blatant disregard, during (but not limited to) that year in particular, for his own fitness, the club, its supporters and perhaps most importantly his role as club captain will forever be a big greasy dark stain on his time at the club.
As for his playing career, this is Gabby’s thirteenth season as a first team member. For me, I find it hard to say that he was impressive in more than four or five of those. After exploding onto the scene as a nineteen-year-old, Agbonlahor’s lightning pace quickly made him a menace to all opposing defences and he quickly started to become a Holte End hero.
Martin O’Neill’s reign coincided with the best three seasons of Agbonlahor’s career, where his pace was utilised to incredible effect in a three-pronged attack along with Ashley Young and John Carew. Whilst never what could be described as truly prolific himself, Agbonlahor reached double figures in each of those seasons. Three full England caps were gained and a rumoured bid in excess of £10 million from Arsenal was mooted but never materialised.
Gabby’s career had burned brightly but would never again reach those heights. O’Neill’s controversial departure saw the decline of both the player and the club. The public tension between the player and new manager Gerard Houllier apparently reached a point to where Agbonlahor even wanted out of the club. Being played out of position under the Frenchman didn’t help during that particular period, but the following years would also see a general malaise with several short bursts of form doing just enough to keep him in the picture.
His last acceptable season for me was 2012-13, where Gabby would notch nine goals in twenty-eight league games; the season in which he was rewarded with the current five-year bumper deal that is only just about to expire.
During these last five years, we have been treated to just thirteen league goals in ninety-six appearances. It is hard to argue that complacency hasn’t been an issue.
Which brings us back to the present day and the upcoming second city derby. Agbonlahor has been a particular scourge to our neighbours. In ten appearances in total against Blues, he has bagged five goals. Three of those have been match winners, including the meeting last year where Bruce threw him on from the bench and five minutes later he had written himself into another piece of derby history. Agbonlahor hadn’t been part of a matchday squad for three months but still miraculously appeared. Cue this weekend.
It’s clear that if Bruce thinks he’s anywhere near fit, he’ll include him on the bench. And if there is one thing that seems to get Gabby going, it is this fixture. Part of him will think that he may still have an outside chance of a new contract. But even if not, the motivation to make himself a hero for one last time should be all he needs to get himself going. if he does play any part, this is going to be his last chance to taste that glory and try to repay the fans and the club for those wasted years.
The term legend is already bandied about too freely. Agbonlahor has had some great moments in his time at Villa. Of course, those goals against our biggest enemy come straight to mind. Scoring the only goal in our first victory at Old Trafford since 1983 against Manchester United is up there also. And perhaps his finest moment was his seven-minute perfect hattrick against Manchester City. But for me, these highs are too few and far between and just infuriate me as to what could’ve, or more accurately, should’ve been.
Longevity itself isn’t enough to achieve legendary status. Agbonlahor had the opportunity of a lifetime, playing football for his boyhood club. On top of that, he has been lucky enough to spend his entire career at Villa. And for the most part, it has been wasted, taken for granted and abused.
Sunday may bring one final chance of glory for him. If so, I hope he makes the most of it. Whatever happens though, his time at Villa is coming to a close. Whilst one final derby-day winning goal will be a perfect send-off, it still won’t quite be enough to become a legend in my eyes and many others. He may have to just settle for being the derby day hero.